Ross Berry felt like he was dating a girl way out of his league.
It was the first substantial relationship of his life. They had known each other for less than a year. And he was just a 15-year-old freshman at Templeton High.
But Berry was sure it was true love.
So when Noel Phillips’ mom phoned to tell him her daughter was gravely ill the summer before they would become sophomores, it rocked the massive Eagles offensive lineman harder than any hit on the football field.
Today, Berry is expected to sign a letter of intent to join the Cal Poly football program. The 18-year-old senior would be the third Templeton player to get a Division I scholarship in the past three seasons after former Mustangs All-America fullback Jake Romanelli was the school’s first in 2007.
At 6-foot-4, 290 pounds and projected to line up at guard, Berry would immediately become one of Cal Poly’s biggest linemen. Eagles coach and former Mustangs standout lineman Dan Loney said Berry has the physical tools to be a contributor the moment he arrives at Cal Poly.
Berry’s intangible emotional maturity, dependability and devotion — things he’s shown Phillips during her ongoing battle with leukemia — are the unsung parts to his game.
Berry met Phillips in the stands at a Paso Robles High football game their freshman year. Introduced by a mutual friend, the only reason he wasn’t nervous talking to her was because he knew he didn’t have a shot. So, he was comfortable being himself.
He could never know at the time how she thought he was the cutest boy in the world, how she was already head over heels.
Phillips was an athlete herself. A member of the Paso Robles High girls volleyball team, she had also played club softball since elementary school and was aiming for an athletic scholarship of her own.
Come June after their freshman year, Phillips was experiencing chronic fatigue and collecting bruises all over her body. Three days before her 15th birthday, a trip to the doctor’s office confirmed these symptoms were not from sports.
Phillips was rushed to Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara, where doctors determined the cancer in her blood had already spread to most of her body. Life-saving treatments began almost immediately, and her blossoming relationship with Berry was abruptly uprooted.
Chemotherapy weakens the body’s defenses while killing cancer cells. And while the immune system is suppressed, patients are often quarantined. Normally mild contagious illnesses become life-threatening.
Survival was the only priority, but that hardly diminished the romance.
“Right before that,” Phillips said, “we had just started really kind of making it official and serious, like a first kiss and telling each other we love each other. Having it all happen just days after that was kind of hard.
“I didn’t break it to him. It was too hard for me. I had my mom call him. He was the first person we might have told about it.”
The couple was cut off physically for more than six months. No dates. No school dances. No picture booths at the Mid-State Fair. No Fair. No fair.
But, despite being in the early stages of their relationship, Berry didn’t back away.
“I just tried to be there as much as I could,” Berry said, “be there when she needs me. I just tried to make her feel like she wasn’t sick.
“As hard as it was on me, I just remembered it was harder on her. We did talk on the phone every night, and we talked every day.
“I never really thought of breaking up as an option. It was just the way it was, what I wanted to do.”
Phillips spent an entire year away from school, including a sophomore season where Berry was an all-county and all-state performer blocking for star running back Tyler Gray, who committed to Hawaii before later transferring to Boise State.
College scouts came to Templeton to see Gray, but it was hard for them not to notice Berry, and he began receiving invitations to football camps at FBS programs all over the West.
Soon, Berry and stepdad Trent Blair were making trips out of state to perform in front of college coaches on their own turf.
Before Berry’s junior year, he received his first scholarship offer from Nevada. San Jose State followed. Sacramento State made an offer, and Berry fielded calls from Boise State, Fresno State and UC Davis. He also received a visit from Army assistant coach Andy Guyader, a former Cal Poly assistant under Rich Ellerson.
Then, the Mustangs gave Berry the offer he’d been waiting for his entire life, and he gave a verbal commitment to Cal Poly more than a month before the start of his senior season at Templeton.
Blair went to Cal Poly. So did Berry’s mother, Erin, who now works at the university, as did her father, Gene, the founder of the family business — North American Seed Company in Greenfield.
Berry’s ties to the agriculture industry made Cal Poly a coveted pick, and Blair had been grooming him to become a Mustang since he dressed Berry up as a Cal Poly baseball player for the Halloween after his second birthday.
NCAA rules prohibit Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh from commenting publicly on recruits before receiving signed letters of intent. Loney, a former three-year starter at center for Cal Poly in the late 1990s who went on to become a three-time Arena Bowl winner with the San Jose SaberCats, is confident Berry can be a solid player at the FCS level.
“Sky’s the limit,” Loney said. “He’s got the size, and he’s got the height. He’s got the strength. It comes down to mental(ity) and not getting distracted by all sorts of other things, but really I think he’s got the athletic ability and the attitude to just go out there and dominate.”
Phillips, meanwhile, finished her final round of chemotherapy in October. She won’t be fully recovered until doctors declare her cancer in remission, and she still has rough days dealing with the disease.
She won’t be playing sports in college.
Cancer has given Phillips a new calling. She plans to study medicine at CSU Channel Islands in Camarillo, aiming to become a pediatric oncology nurse.
Despite not attending Cal Poly, Phillips plans on seeing Berry’s home games. Last season, Phillips said watching Mustangs home games with Berry allowed her to experience something special through him.
They’ll be separated by distance once again. But they’ve done distance, and it didn’t faze them after the leukemia diagnosis.
“I wasn’t sure how a boy would react,” Phillips said, “but that’s one thing that I really think that could set him aside from every other boy. I feel that would be really hard for someone as young as we are to handle and understand because you don’t really know what goes on. But he did, and he stayed with me through it all, and I really admire him for doing that.”
Berry said he couldn’t imagine himself with anyone else. “She’s the one,” he said, and he doesn’t plan on that changing.
“To me,” Blair said, their enduring relationship “was easily the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. Kids these days just move on, and he didn’t. He was strong, and he grew up a lot. She grew up a lot. When something like that happens, that’s life, and I think that’s one of the reasons he grew up so fast. He dealt with a lot.”